a sermon on Mark 10:35-45
It had been a long journey, but Jerusalem was finally in sight. Jesus and the disciples had wandered all around Galilee and even a little beyond, but now their destination was this great city that had not yet heard for itself the message that Jesus had come to share. On the way there, Jesus made it clear to them—again—what he was up to:
See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.
Everyone who followed him was amazed—and afraid. They had not signed up for this, after all—they had followed Jesus because he brought a fresh word to their stale world, not to witness an execution.
So it was no surprise that James and John came to Jesus with a strange request as they continued along the way after he had announced this difficult news to them yet again. They knew that their request was so unlikely to be granted that they asked for Jesus to say yes before they even said what it was, but they asked for it anyway! Even though he refused to grant their wish before hearing it, they did finally tell him what they had in mind: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your life, in your glory.”
James and John were reasonably afraid about all that would be ahead for them, and they were just looking for some comfort. After all, they had given three years of their lives to following this strange teacher around Galilee, setting aside their lives as fishermen and walking away from their families as they responded to Jesus’ strange call. They were afraid that they might have nothing more to show for all this than the responsibility of joining the procession of mourners at his funeral—or of finding themselves dead, too.
Jesus, though, was a bit concerned about James’ and John’s request. He wasn’t quite sure that they understood everything that this glorified position at his right and at his left would entail. He never criticized James and John for asking, but he was quite direct with them:
You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?
Somewhat amazingly, James and John said that they could do this, but Jesus still had another surprise for them in his response. While he promised that they would share the gift and challenge of sharing his cup and his baptism, that they would find some comfort from their fears as they joined him in some of what was ahead, Jesus made it clear that the status and honor that James and John desired were not things that he could offer them—“to sit at my right hand or at my left… is for those for whom it has been prepared.” Jesus could not offer comfort and hope through the promise of something better for the days ahead—instead, he could simply point them to the gift of walking with him at every step of the journey ahead. Of course, he may have also been a bit concerned about what the other disciples might have said had he agreed to James’ and John’s request, for they were not happy when they heard about it, either!
So Jesus addressed the situation head on with all of them. Status and power—and even the comforts of a future day and age—were not his point. He had not come to face up to the powers of sin and death so that just two of the people who had tagged along for his journey might keep pestering him from his right and his left for all eternity. He was not going to live the life he lived so that a few people could enjoy the benefits of power and privilege. He was not in this game to save a few people along the way but to transform the life of the whole world. While the rest of the world might be fixated on power and privilege and prestige, Jesus made it clear that his world was not:
Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.
The fear and uncertainty that they were feeling were not going to be resolved if they just had enough power to overcome it all—instead, Jesus made it clear that they had to approach the things ahead with a new and different perspective, to live together in new and different ways even as they faced the difficult realities of fear and uncertainty ahead.
Over the last 144 years of life together at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone, this congregation has explored many of these new and different ways. We have seen joyous possibilities and great rejoicing, and we have known the kind of fear and uncertainty that marked those days for James and John. In those early years, when we might look out the windows of this sanctuary and see cattle and farmland around us, we found a way to be servants in this community. In those years when these walls were bursting with children and adults, we found a way to be servants in this community. And in these more recent years when more than once we have looked around with uncertainty about what is ahead, we have found a way to be servants in this community.
So as we celebrate the 144th anniversary of the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone today, as we look back on what we once knew and wonder what our status and privilege will be in the days ahead, as we look around us at the challenges of finances, people, and resources, as we are tempted to look ahead of us with uncertainty and fear, Jesus challenges us to think differently about how we will live together in the days ahead. Our life together as the faithful people of God is not dependent upon regaining the size and stature we may have once known as a congregation. Our hope for the days ahead does not become real if only we can find a way to ignore our fears and uncertainties. Our way forward does not become real if we protect ourselves at the expense of others.
Instead, just as Jesus called James and John to explore a different path, we too are called to set aside our fears, our uncertainties, even our intent upon self-protection as we step out into the world in faithful service. This faithful service moves us into a different way of living together, for in service we come together as God’s people to love and serve in God’s world, setting aside any status that we might seek for ourselves as individuals or our church as a community as we seek instead to follow in Christ’s footsteps. We take a step in this direction as we shift our worship next Sunday to Bowne Park, gathering not to sing praise to God but to invite our community to action, sharing our time together with our community so that we all might work to “orange our neighborhood” and raise awareness of and bring an end to violence against women and girls. Our success in this venture will likely go unmeasured by the world’s standards, but we can trust that this act of service to our community will stand strong alongside so many others offered by our sisters and brothers in this place over the last 144 years to continue the transformation of our community and our world begun in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
After all, Jesus promises that even the challenges we might encounter along the way can strengthen us for this journey. The cup that he drank and the baptism that he was baptized with are not just stumbling blocks to glory but the gift of the sacraments that we share in this place that send us out to love and serve in the world. We share the cup of blessing that Jesus himself offers us in this place when we offer ourselves in service to others, and we know the baptism of new life that Jesus himself experienced when we share that call to new life with others. As we experience and share this cup and this baptism, we encounter the presence of the risen Christ among us and are given strength and hope for new and different life in the days ahead.
So amid this celebration of anniversaries that we share here today, may our eyes, ears, and hearts be opened to God’s call to serve in and beyond this congregation as we seek a new way of life together in this place and model that life for our weary world, waiting, watching, and working for all things to be made new in Jesus Christ our Lord. Lord, come quickly! Alleluia! Amen.